The following is a survey of 12 major North American airlines’ snack and on-board food offerings conducted by and health advocate, Dr. Charles Platkin, from HUNTER College and City University of New York School of Public Health. The survey assigned a “Health Score” (5 stars = highest rate, 0 star = lowest) based on eight criteria including health of meals and snack boxes, health of individual snacks, healthy offerings, calorie levels (snacks, meals, snack boxes), improvement from last year’s survey, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information. The survey includes health ratings, average calories per airline, cost, comments, food offerings, calories, and exercise equivalents. The average number of calories per food item for all airlines last year was 388. This year it’s 360 calories per food item — a drop! Check to see how your favorite airline fared. Of course, in-flight meals vary so offerings on your next flight may differ from what Dr. Platkin sampled below.

Virgin America

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Excellent

Health Score: (**** 1/2)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 458.6

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 360.75

Average Individual Snack Calories = 270.63

Best Bets: Avoid the individual snacks, since none of them are very healthy. Even the nuts, which are the best choice, are high in calories if you consume the entire package. For breakfast, Virgin used to have low-calorie oatmeal, which has been replaced by a higher-calorie granola with fruit and yogurt — not too bad if you were rushing to catch the plane and didn’t have any other choice. The best snack box is the Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna. The others are a bit high in calories that are not really worth it.

For kids, skip the Jet Set Kid Pack if you can, and go for the half peanut butter and jam sandwich. It’s a better choice. In general, the best bet is to go for a real meal, even if you save half for later. Nearly all the Travel Light meals are good choices (although the half wrap might not be filling enough). Just reading the menu can make you hungry and excited to fly on Virgin America. The standouts are the Roasted Pear and Arugula Salad with almonds and a fig mustard dressing, which has lots of fiber and only 310 calories. Also, the Chicken Protein Platter is a bit higher in calories (you can always skip some of the cheese), but the protein will keep you feeling full and alert. Again, these are meals that will fill you up and help you avoid the junk. The good news is that none of the food goes overboard in terms of calories — so you really can’t go too far wrong.

Air Canada

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Excellent

Health Score: (**** 1/2)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 330.95

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 296.90

Average Individual Snack Calories = 365

Best Bets: They can do slightly better on their individual snack offerings. Pick the Nissin Chicken Ramen Noodle Soup. It will fill you up, and it’s more like a meal than a snack. The cashews need to be shared. For kids, the apples with caramel dip are an OK choice, but you should probably limit the caramel. I still love the idea of the Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip (limit the dip to no more than half). For the individual snacks, many are healthy (e.g., nuts, humus), but should be shared. Most of the full meals are relatively low in calories. The Roasted Chicken Wrap is a reasonable choice; however, it has more calories than last year.

The airline is also offering a salad — nice work, especially with the quinoa. Breakfast, other than the bagel, is a home run on Air Canada. Go for the Greek yogurt, which is only 150 calories, or the fruit plate (which sounds delicious) for only 186 calories. The smoothies and oatmeal are also strong choices. So glad Air Canada eliminated the calorie-laden muffin.

Alaska Airlines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very helpful

Health Score: (****)

Average Calories = 402.77

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 402.77 (no individual snacks)

Best Bets: Among the snack boxes, the Mediterranean Tapas box hasn’t changed much from last year and is still the healthiest choice. It has olives, hummus, almonds, dried fruit and even a dark chocolate bar. But keep in mind that 497 calories is a bit high for a “snack” (or even a meal) so it’s best if you share the box. For kids, the snack box may be tempting, but it’s always better for children (and adults) to eat a real meal than it is to “snack” aimlessly.

As far as breakfast choices go, those on the west or northbound flights are all high in calories, but if you happen to be going east or south before December 2013, the Tex-Mex Breakfast is a reasonable choice. The French Toast is not healthy. The Fruit and Cheese plate is available all day and is the best choice for breakfast if you skip the crackers and half the cheese. Among the hot foods, the best choices on the south and eastbound flights are the Mediterranean Quinoa Salad Shaker and the Chicken Wrap, and on north and westbound flights choose the Asian Chicken Salad Shaker. (See what we ate on board Alaska Airlines from San Diego to Lihue.)

JetBlue Airways

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very helpful

Health Score: (***1/2)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 316.41

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 450.22

Average Individual Snack Calories = 165.88

Best Bets: Still nothing much in terms of healthy individual snacks, other than the nuts. And, by the way, the animal crackers are not a great choice, as some of you still insist. Keep in mind, the individual snacks are free, so don’t take more than one. Also, I’m not sure why, but instead of adding healthier snacks they now have Doritos (which did replace the Fritos, but still…).

In terms of the meal boxes, Shape Up has healthy ingredients, but should not be eaten as a snack — it’s a meal. Skip the other meal boxes, which are high in calories and fat and offer little in terms of nutrition. If you are on a flight that does offer the Eat Up Café, the Yogurt Parfait and the Quinoa Salad are the best choices as the others are not wonderful (but if you don’t like yogurt or quinoa, the Roast Beef Sandwich will do).

United Airlines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very helpful

Health Score: (*** 1/4)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks = 458.58

Average Meal/ Snackbox Calories = 521.38

Average Individual Snack Calories = 322.50

Best Bets: On flights of more than two hours, choose the Tapas snack box, which is high in calories but has many healthy foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta — just toss out the cheese spread. The snack box should be shared unless you eat it as a meal. On flights of less than three hours, you don’t have much of a choice for a meal, and the Tapas will fill you up and provide healthy nutrients. Skip the Classic and Savory snack boxes — not too much nutritionally going on.

The individual snacks on United have improved from a calorie perspective (the range is now 190 to 650, whereas last year it was 330 to 1,020), and from a health perspective, they’ve scrapped the Chex Mix, croissants, cinnamon rolls and 1,000-calorie nuts. Great work! United has also added the Sweet & Savory Bistro Blend Trail Mix, which is a good choice if you share it with three others (it’s 560 calories per bag), the Two Degrees Food Bars at 190 calories per bar, and the Wild Garden Hummus Dip with Chips at 210 calories. The bars and hummus are both good snack choices. Skip the cheese plate; there are better options.

On flights of more than three hours, United has eliminated the Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad at 360 calories — too bad. The good news is that they’ve added the Mediterranean-Style Salad, which is a good low-calorie choice that includes grilled zucchini, squash, bell pepper, olives, hummus and pita. Another reasonable choice is the Turkey & Swiss Cranberry Baguette (maybe skip the cheese). Skip the Cobb Salad Wrap as it is high in calories (do not be fooled by the word “salad”). For breakfast, your best bet is the Morning Energy Selection with fruit, egg and yogurt. The other breakfasts available are not very healthy.

American Airlines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Excellent

Health Score: (***)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 456

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 447.57

Average Individual Snack Calories = 470.75

Best Bets: For individual snacks, the hummus and chips is your best choice at 203 calories (plus healthy hummus). You can pass on the other snacks, especially the fruit and nut mix, unless you have a large family to share it with. I’m not disciplined enough to order that — I would eat the entire 640 calories. Too bad American dropped the Insalata Caprese salad. Now there are no real meals available for that two-hour-plus flight time.

If you’re on a longer flight (three hours or more), the Fresh Chicken Caesar Salad Bowl minus the chips is the way to go (give the chips away or refuse them). Avoid the brisket sandwich as even without the chips it’s more than 600 calories. For breakfast on flights of two hours or more there’s not much to eat. You can share the Fruit and Nut Mix with three or more people and be OK until you land (provided you skipped breakfast). On flights of three hours or more, the Breakfast Sandwich is the better choice (without the cookies; give them away or refuse them). There is not much cheese on the fruit and cheese plate so skip it. (Food aside, the wine has improved on American Airlines. Read about our trip from Tokyo to LAX and premium class in-flight food on the oneworld Alliance.)

US Airways

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very helpful

Health Score: (***)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 442.46

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 532

Average Individual Snack Calories = 367.50

Best Bets: The only individual snacks that work are the nuts (split with three people or more), the Clif Chocolate Chip Protein Bar and the chips and salsa. The rest lack nutritional value (and have too many calories). However, none of these are a really healthy choice. Among the snack boxes, the Café Plus is much better this year, with mostly healthy items, including roasted garlic hummus, olives, honey glazed almond mix and a fig bar. The Café Snack box can also work if you share it, or it can serve as a meal for one.

As for meals, for lunch or dinner the Egg and Turkey Bacon Sandwich (until Dec. 6) has actually increased in calories since last year (it was already high), but still, it’s a real meal, and if you give away the yogurt or take off the jack cheese and the top part of the flatbread it can be a good choice. It’s better than the Fruit and Cheese Plate, which is lower in calories but won’t fill you up. Also, for breakfast you can opt for the Yogurt Parfait at 260 calories (it’s the granola that adds all the calories).

For lunch or dinner the Crispy Chicken Salad is probably a miss since it has fried chicken as the protein source. After Dec. 6, the lunch options are all more than 600 calories. Choose the Turkey & Cheese Croissant Sandwich, but take off the cheese. You can also choose the Chicken Cheddar Wrap and give away the chips, or go for the Penne and remove the meat to save calories.

Delta Air Lines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: More helpful than last year

Health Score: (**3/4)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 447.57

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 516.91

Average Individual Snack Calories = 294

Best Bets: For the free snacks (on flights of 1.5 hours-plus) the peanuts are the best choice. None of the “for sale” individual snacks is a good choice. If you do get the nut mix, make sure to share it with at least two others. Gosh, the snack boxes are getting worse (higher in calories). Both boxes are poor choices. However, if you choose the Eats Tapas, eat the hummus, bruschetta, olives, almonds, apricots and dark chocolate — skip the rest, and make this a meal, not a snack. Of the breakfast options, your best bet is the Kickstart Combo (yogurt, banana and Kind bar) at 340 calories. If you share the Fruit & Cheese Plate at 560 calories, skip the crackers, and don’t eat all the cheese, it can be a good choice because of the fruit and almonds (and some of the cheese). The Turkey Slider Combo is a good choice if you skip the chips.

On westbound flights of more than three hours, for lunch/dinner you can have the corned beef sandwich (if no other option suits you), but take off the Swiss cheese and skip the mayo. On eastbound flights of more than three hours, the Roasted Chicken Breast Sandwich is pretty good if you take off the cheddar cheese, and skip the aioli. On flights between Atlanta and Hawaii Delta has two healthy salads — Greek and Caesar. I wish they offered these on all flights.

Frontier Airlines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Very helpful

Health Score: (** 3/4)

Average Calories Over All (Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 380.09

Average Snack Box Calories = 613.67 (No meals available; only snacks)

Best Bets: For individual snacks, the Larabar is a very good choice (made from whole foods). The Mediterranean Snack Box with hummus, bruschetta, dried fruit and olives is really high in calories but not bad if shared or eaten as a meal, not a snack; just skip the cookies. As for the kids’ snack boxes, the Flip’s Surf Shop & Snack Shack is not the best choice.

Southwest Airlines

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Excellent

Health Score: (**)

Average Calories = 108 (Individual Snacks only; no meals or snack boxes available)

Comments: Not much variety and not much in terms of nutritional value. They need to add a few healthy items. How about an apple? Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.

Allegiant Air

Cooperation in Providing Nutritional Information: Not very helpful

Health Score: (* 1/2)

Average Calories Over All (Meals, Snack Boxes and Individual Snacks) = 408.25

Average Meal/ Snack Box Calories = 500.40

Average Individual Snack Calories = 366.36

Best Bets: The snack boxes are not great in terms of health (and not just calorie-wise). Among the individual snacks, nuts are the healthiest choice. Low-carb fans might consider Jack Link’s Beef Jerky. Overall, the turkey sandwich without cheese is a good choice for the West Coast. On the East Coast, go with the hummus, but you’ll probably want to make sure you bring a sandwich for yourself. For more airline food fun, follow my board on Pinterest that is dedicated to the subject.

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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  1. I gotta admit…I don’t go for health when choosing my meals/snacks when flying. I just try to get whatever doesn’t sound too hideous. I do try to order something with protein, though, rather than just a pile of sugar and carbs.

    1. I don’t eat particularly healthy on board. Though I remember I was flying Virgin Atlantic from LAX to London and they only had a sausage lattice pastry option left by the time they got to my meal. I felt sick for the entire flight because it was sooooo heavy.

  2. Really good info to have. I would also love to see the breakdown on more foreign carriers. The food just always seems so heavy.

    1. I find that more so when traveling to Europe. When we fly to Asia there seems to be more mini dishes comprising an entire meal so you can pick around the unhealthy stuff without going hungry… most of the time!

  3. Useful information! It’s too bad airplane food is so tricky nowadays (not that it’s ever been great…, but it seems like I used to get decent food on flights to Europe.)

  4. That is very interesting! I rarely eat the entree regardless… But I do love to snack on planes. Something about not having unlimited access to food makes me hungry and want to access my snacks immediately 🙂